My recent op-ed in The Daily Star (December 11 2017) was on the Rohingya repatriation and resettlement issue. This is slowly brewing into a contentious issue given the fairly vague but speedy repatriation proposal by the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) and the concurrent announcement by the Myanmar government to relocate the Rohingya returnees to temporary camps in Rakhine state. This means that those to be repatriated would not be allowed to return to their original homes, thus raising enormous fear and tensions among the refugees in makeshift camps in Ukhia and Teknaf in Cox's Bazar.
Many Rohingya refugees have reported appalling violation of human rights, atrocities and many forms of abuses, including homes and villages being burned down, parents and relatives being killed in front of their children, and women and girls being raped or brutalised. According to a recent estimate by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), at least 6,700 Rohingyas were killed in Myanmar between August 25 and September 24, 2017 after violence broke out in Rakhine state. The Rohingya situation in Myanmar is thus a “textbook” case of genocide.
Can the refugees really be repatriated while the circumstances that led to the current situation continue and remain unresolved? It is obvious that the conditions are not right for repatriation any time soon – not even in years, according to many experts. The United Nations has repeatedly warned against any hasty return of Rohingyas. Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during her visit to Kutupalong refugee camp, demanded an end to the ongoing persecution against the Rohingyas. Many refugees reportedly burst into tears while narrating their sufferings to the PM and how Myanmar security forces tortured them and their families.
It is reported that the PM recalled the experiences of the Bangladeshi refugees, who fled to India in 1971 in the face of military crackdown by the Pakistan army. The PM assured the Rohingya refugees of food and shelter on humanitarian grounds. She, however, asserted that the Rohingya refugees are Myanmar nationals and that “Myanmar must take its citizens back” and urged the international community to exert pressure on Myanmar to repatriate the refugees.
For repatriation to take place, the Myanmar regime must demonstrate to the international community that peace and stability has been restored and rule of law established in Rakhine state. Furthermore, as a first step, full humanitarian access must be granted, including broader UN and NGO community. Also, the returnees must be allowed to return home with full support and assistance for rebuilding their homes and livelihoods. Their rights to self-identification as Rohingya and full rights as citizens, which have been systematically denied and/or restricted by the regime, must be guaranteed. Returning to camps in Rakhine state should not be an option. There are already over 100,000 displaced Rohingyas in abusive camp life in central Rakhine displaced by the 2012 violence against ethnic Rohingyas. It has to be remembered that Myanmar created the refugee problem and must address it following all international standards and practices.
The Rohingya repatriation, therefore, should not be viewed as desired by Myanmar as a bilateral issue; the international communities and agencies, starting with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) must be involved in the implementation and monitoring of any repatriation arrangements. It is also important that multilateral agencies such as the UN and European Union work together with the Myanmar regime to address the root causes of the crisis and push for the full implementation of the Kofi Annan Commission Report, which recommended urgent and sustained actions to prevent violence, maintain peace, foster reconciliation and offer a sense of hope to the hard-pressed Rohingya population.
The repatriation agreement signed by GOB and the Myanmar government can at best be viewed as an “entry point” to address this humanitarian crisis. Given the situations in Rakhine state, and lack of readiness by the Myanmar regime, it may take years or even decades to resolve the refugee crisis. As of December 7, 2017, close to 800,000 Rohingya refugees have been registered from 12 makeshift camps; of this, 36,000 have been identified as orphan boys and girls. Ultimately, it may so happen that many refugees will be made ineligible to return as Myanmar has the upper hand, as per the agreement, on who can return after being properly verified. Therefore, in addition to refugee repatriation, the government should consider all possible options for refugee resettlement.
One possible option in case of such massive displacement by ethnic conflicts is third-country resettlement of displaced refugees. There are many examples of such third-country refugee resettlement from many hotspots globally, caused by ethnic conflicts, wars and other forms disasters and displacements. For Rohingyas, this was flagged clearly by UNHCR as early as February 2017 with a request to the Bangladesh government to allow negotiating with the United States, Canada, and some European countries to resettle around 1,000 Rohingya refugees. Under the current political climate in the U.S., it may be a hard sell for UNHCR; however, there are other countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany and other European and Scandinavian countries that still welcome people on humanitarian grounds. The UNHCR has a clear responsibility to pursue this protection-oriented resettlement programme for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
A successful third-country resettlement of Rohingyas is very much possible. In my view, the UNHCR was very conservative in terms of exploring third-country resettlement potentials. For instance, Canada alone took 25,000 Syrians refugees in 2016. In Europe, Germany received over 300,000 asylum seekers. The United Kingdom has pledged to take in 20,000 refugees who are currently living in camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan. Such a third-country resettlement will lessen the current burden on the Bangladesh government and at the same time provide huge opportunities for a better future for literally hundreds and thousands of Rohingya refugees. Therefore, the Government of Bangladesh should work with UNHCR and facilitate such resettlement arrangements through establishing a high-powered committee for third-country Rohingya resettlement involving relevant UN agencies, International Organization of Migration (IOM), NGOs/civil society working with the refugees, and representatives of potential sponsor countries. The UNHCR can play the role of a catalyst in making this happen with the support of the government and in coordination with the sponsoring states by establishing multi-year pledges for refugee resettlement in third countries.
Mohammad Zaman is an international development/resettlement specialist and Advisory Professor, NRCR/Hohai University, Nanjing, China.